Spicy Science: Plant Evolution [Big Bite Nite]

This year, Big Bite Nite is turning up the heat! Many of our participating restaurants are spicing things up with dishes served diablo, and so we’ve been thinking a lot about spice.

Like – where does spice come from?

Radishes are spicy?
You may be surprised at the range
of plants that have spice in them!

Essentially – it comes from plants. Spice is all natural! And Smithsonian Magazine recently published a fascinating article about the evolution of spice in plant populations. To quote the article:

“The heat-generating compound in chilies, capsaicin, has long been known to affect taste buds, nerve cells and nasal membranes (it puts the sting in pepper spray). But its function in wild chili plants has been mysterious.”

In other words, despite the fact that humans enjoy  super-spicy salsa, fiery Indian vindaloo or eye-watering wasabi – and that we’ve been “spicing up…food with chilies for at least 8,000 years” – there doesn’t seem to be an immediately obvious reason for plants to develop this characteristic.

So, as often happens when science meets an unanswered question, studies were undertaken. And as it turns out: “the more capsaicin, the less fungal infection.” And since fungus thrives in humid environments,  “the moister the climate, the spicier the chilies.” This is why hot chilies typically come from hot regions of the world.

Fascinating! And – we wanted to know more. So, we met up with Nancy, a botanist in addition to being our curator of entomology, Director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and blogger for BEYONDbones to explore the science behind the spice. Check it out in the video below!

Can’t see the movie? Click here to view it.

In the meantime, here are some other fascinating tidbits from the article:

  • Chilies aren’t really hot – capsaicin stimulates neural receptors in your tongue and skin that detect rising temperatures.
  • We really like spice – and chilies spread around the world with great speed. “Within 50 years of Columbus’ voyages, Pernambuco chilies were being cultivated in India, Japan and China. Chilies made it to the American Colonies with the English in 1621.”
  • Traces of chilies have been found “on ancient milling stones and cooking pots from the Bahamas to southern Peru.”

Check out the full Smithsonian article here. And, check out what’s happening for Big Bite Nite on April 29 – and enter to win tickets to the event, as well as check out the other videos in our spicy video series – at the event web site.

Which raptor turned into the first bird?

We get so many great questions through our blog, and every now and then we can turn those responses into a blog post. One our readers favorite posts is “What would YOU ask a paleontologist?”

Last week we got this question from kght2:

“Do all birds come from a specific raptor, or do they come from different species of raptor that are cousins and not ancestors. I wonder this because while all birds are similar, they don’t seem to be any more similar than different raptors I have seen, and while this isn’t great information, I have heard of many raptors likely having some from for feathers. Primarily i wonder if the consensus is that all birds came from a single species, or that they came from a family of species instead, and this answer would also have implications that people should know for any species or family of species?”

Dr. Bakker, curator of paleontology here at the museum wrote this in response:

Another darn good question.

Archaeopteryx was the first bird, back in the Late Jurassic. It’s got the complicated arrangement of feathers on its arm to fly like a pheasant today does. All other birds evolved from Archaeopteryx or something very like it

Deinonychus (read my blog about Deinonychus) is a famous raptor-dinosaurs who look very close in their bones to Archaeopteryx. The tiny Microraptor from China is closer still.  Thanks to the dinosaur specimens from Laoning, China, we know that all the raptor-type dinosaurs had feathers. (T. rex had feathers too – the tyrannosaur clan were clothed in a full pelt of fine kiwi-style plumage.) But Deinonychus and all the Laoning feathered dinosaurs are from the Early Cretaceous – that’s too late to be an Archaeopteryx ancestor.

We need a Jurassic raptor to be our Archaeopteryx ancestor.

We now have a few specimens from the end of the Jurassic. These are advanced raptor-like dinosaurs with long arms built like Archaeopteryx.

So….we’re getting close to discovering the one, single raptor-dinosaur who evolved into the first bird. It had to be in the Mid or Late Jurassic.

If you have any questions you would like to ask any of our bloggers or curators, send us an email at blogadmin@hmns.org.

Interested in learning more about dino-birds? Make sure to check out our next exhibition, Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, opening April 23, 2010.

The Discoverie of Witchcraft

How much do you know about magic? It’s time to see through the illusion! The Magic! exhibit is now open at HMNS. Throughout the run of the exhibit, check back here for exclusive videos and descriptions of the unique items on display from curator Scott Cervine.

In 1563, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a law was passed making the practice of witchcraft a felony. This led to the persecution of many innocents and so outraged a gentleman farmer, Reginald Scot, Esquire (1538-1599) that he decided to publish an exposé of the fallacies of such superstitious thinking.

He had previously written the first known book in English on the cultivation of hops (A Perfite Platform of a Hoppe Garden, 1574).  In 1584, his self-published The Discoverie of Witchcraft became the first book in English “debunking” such superstitions. But it was regarded by many as heretical, since it countered the teachings of the Church of England at the time. King James I of Scotland wrote an entire book, Daemonologie (1597) defending his belief in witchcraft against the arguments presented by Scot and others. When James ascended to the English throne in 1603, he is said to have ordered all copies of Scot’s Discoverie publicly burned by the Royal hangman. Many of the surviving copies, like this one, have severely reduced margins, which may have resulted from trimming away the charred edges of copies rescued from the hangman’s fire.

The importance of Scot’s book to conjuring is due to his extensive discussion of conjuring tricks, explaining their natural—not supernatural—basis by revealing the basics of sleight of hand. That it pained him to expose the secrets of this already ancient art is clear in introduction to this section of his work: “… being sorie that it falleth out to my lot, to laie open the secrets of this mysterie, to the hindrance of such poore men as live thereby, whose doings herein are not only tolerable, but greatly commendable, so they abuse not the Name of God, nor make the people attribute unto them His power…”

Scot had learned much of the magicians’ repertoire from a skilled French-born named John Cautares who earned an “honest living” as a laborer. Scot chiefly discussed tricks with balls, coins and cards, but also apparent feats of self mutilation and even decapitation. In doing so, he gave us an intimate portrait of the 16th century conjuring repertoire and its technical basis. Although Scot’s intent was to expose—rather than teach—magic, his book formed the basis of conjuring literature in English and several other languages (it was quickly translated into Dutch and German) for more than 200 years. It is also said to have been used by Shakespeare as a source for his plays when dealing with the themes of witchcraft.

Butterfly Gardener Alert!

Today’s post was written by Soni, horticulturalist for our Butterfly Center. She and the other employees are hard at word preparing for our upcoming Plant Sale on April 10.

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

Got butterflies? Probably not, if your garden suffered freeze damage over the past few months. After this unusually long and cold winter, many of us have lost plants, especially species that are more tropical and not adapted to freezing temperatures.

But now that winter is finally behind us, it’s time to replant! Butterfly gardeners won’t want to miss the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Spring Plant Sale. It’s happening soon:  Saturday, April 10, 2010 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Some of you may be seasoned butterfly gardeners, but others may be asking, “How DO you ‘garden’ for butterflies?” It’s quite simple.   For a successful butterfly garden you need two types of plant:  nectar and host plants.

Mix of flowers

Coneflowers and Rudbeckias
Creative Commons License photo credit: Per Ola Wiberg ~ Powi

Thanks to their specialized mouthparts – a long, thin, straw-like proboscis – adult butterflies can only consume liquid food.  The blooms of nectar plants produce a sugary liquid (nectar) that butterflies sip to give them the energy to fly, mate, and produce eggs.  Most nectar plants have colorful flowers borne in showy clusters.  Some examples of good nectar plants for our area are Porter Weed, Echinacea (Purple Cone Flower), Zinnias, Rudbeckia (Brown and Black-eyed Susans), Monarda (Bee Balm), Lantana, Salvias, Eupatorium (Mistflower), Cuphea, Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), and Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), among many others.

Green Papilio polyxenes caterpillar

Eastern Black
Swallowtail Caterpillar
Creative Commons License photo credit: cyanocorax

In contrast to the adults, baby butterflies, aka caterpillars, have chewing mouthparts and eat leaves.  Many butterflies are quite choosy in their caterpillar stage, and can only survive and grow on specific plants, which we call host plants.  For example, Monarch caterpillars will only eat Asclepias (Milkweed); they cannot and will not eat anything else.  Female butterflies seek out the appropriate host plants for their babies when they are laying eggs.  Some host plants that can be included in your butterfly garden are Asclepias (for Monarchs and Queen Butterflies); Passionvines (for Gulf Fritillaries and if you’re lucky, Zebra Longwings); Citrus and Rue (for Giant Swallowtails); Dill, Parsley, and Fennel (for Black Swallowtails); Aristolochia aka Pipevine (for Pipevine and Polydamas Swallowtails); and Cassia aka Senna (for Sulphur Butterflies).  If you see caterpillars eating these plants, rejoice!  You will soon have lots of beautiful butterflies coming to your nectar plants.

Some of you may think you don’t want caterpillars eating away in your garden.  If so, you can avoid host plants and include only nectar plants.  However, you’ll get more butterflies if you plant both.  We predict that soon you’ll be treasuring every caterpillar!

Many of the nectar and host plants listed above will be available at our sale.  We strive to provide butterfly-attracting plants that are either native or naturalized in Texas, and that perform well in the Houston area.  Our sale is also a good place to learn more about butterfly gardening.  Several experts will be on hand to answer questions and to help you choose plants.


Plant Sale! At the Cockrell Butterfly Center from HMNS on Vimeo.

So save the date:  Saturday, April 10, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Come early, the plants go fast!